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This fall, prepare your spring garden

Autumn is the time to imagine a sea of color and plant bulbs.

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No wonder bulbs have been the must-have plants of spring for centuries.

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Container gardening with bulbs, 'lasagna style'

Always on the lookout for new ways gardeners can use bulbs, the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, in Danby, Vt., has a recipe for a spring container display.

Sally Ferguson, center director, dubs the approach "lasagna style" because it involves planting layers of early, mid- and late-season bulbs in a half barrel or other large container.

The approach should work in warm areas of US Department of Agriculture hardiness Zone 6 and higher, where temperatures are unlikely to freeze the bulbs.

Gardeners in Zone 5 may have success by storing containers in unheated garages or using large containers to help insulate from icy wind and rapid temperature fluctuations. Wrapping containers with burlap, bubble wrap, or other insulation may help. If in doubt, Ms. Ferguson suggests experimenting with a few pots. Here's the recipe:

Select bulbs of crocus, daffodil, grape hyacinth, and tulip. Put broken pots or stones in the container for good drainage, then fill the bottom with regular potting soil.

Plant the largest bulbs (daffodils and tulips) 8 inches deep; small bulbs (crocuses and grape hyacinths) about 5 inches deep. Plant closely for maximum color (bulbs can rub shoulders). Don't worry about bottom bulbs for their shoots will grow up and around the higher layers of bulbs.

Don't plant closer than 2 inches from the side of the container wall to better insulate bulbs from rapid temperature fluctuations.

Allow at least 3 inches at the top for mulch (colder climes). Don't fill it so full that there's no room to retain water.

Keep the potting mix damp – not soggy.

Top the containers with metal screening to keep out chipmunks and squirrels.

Move the pots outdoors when you see similar bulbs sprouting in the garden.

Transplant the bulbs into the garden after they finish flowering. Given care, there's a good chance the crocus, daffodils, and grape hyacinths will bloom again in a year or two. Tulips are less likely to recover.

How to select the best bulbs now for a spring display

The best spring-flowering bulbs come from reputable garden centers and mail-order sources.

Those recommended by R. William Thomas, executive director of Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia, and Colleen Schuetz, head horticulturist of Chicago's Lurie Garden, are Brent and Becky's (call 877-661-2852, or visit www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com); orVan Englen (call 860-567-8734 or visit www.vanengelen.com).

They also have these suggestions for success with bulbs, which include the botanically different rhizomes and corms:

•Be wary if the price seems too low. These could be small bulbs that produce smaller-than-normal flowers.

•Select healthy bulbs that are free of rot, soft spots, shriveled areas, and green shoots.

•Pair bulbs with plants that don't need a lot of water during the summer to reduce chances of rot. Bulbs require good drainage.

•Save work by planting layers in a single hole in the garden. Big bulbs go on the bottom, smaller ones near the top.

•Consider daffodils and other narcissus, which are toxic, and allium, an onion relative, to dissuade hungry rodents.

•Use prechilled bulbs in warm-winter areas.

For additional information about growing bulbs, visit the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center's website at www.bulb.com.